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Fit To Print: An Uncanny Take on an American Classic

By on April 3, 2013
Peter and Donna Thomas The Pencil, 2010, handmade paper, six vintage pencils, cedar wood pencil holder, goat leather spine, 8 1/2 x 5 1/2 inches. Photograph courtesy of Peter and Donna Thomas.

Fit To Print examines the dynamic history and current state of the book arts in Atlanta and the Southeastern United States. Fit To Print shows how this region greatly shapes the world of artists’ books, fine press books, and other print-based art by covering book arts events and highlighting work by Southern book artists.


The Wandering Book Artists’ Gypsy Wagon. Photo by the author.

On March 3, the main library at Emory University hosted a reception, complete with hors d’oeuvres, alcohol, and music, to commemorate the opening of a tuna can. One hundred of these particular cans exist: one is empty, and the other ninety-nine don’t contain Chicken of the Sea, but circular books just under three inches in diameter—folded like an accordion, and printed with the first paragraph of John Steinbeck’s 1945 novel Cannery Row.

Peter and Donna Thomas, An Excerpt from John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, 2003, tin can, handmade paper, watercolor, distressed iron, circular book is 2 7/8 inches in diameter, can is 3 1/4 by 2 inches. Photograph courtesy of Peter and Donna Thomas.

This paragraph, which describes the “miracle of supply” in a California general store, is a literary passage much loved by Peter and Donna Thomas, the creators of this adaptation of Steinbeck. The Thomas’s An Excerpt from John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row (2003) pays homage to the American author and tells a spirited history of Cannery Row—a street in Monterrey, California that was lined with sardine fisheries in the 1940s. Donna researched this period in Monterrey’s history at the Steinbeck Museum in nearby Salinas before the Thomases began building the book. They initially wanted to house the miniature books inside antique sardine tins that were opened with a key. Upon discovering that the only manufacturer of these types of tins is located in Ireland, the couple turned to Dave’s Gourmet Albacore, a small fishery and cannery in Santa Cruz, to can the books. The books are bound with pieces of iron that Peter and Donna distressed with vinegar; and they are nestled—like Easter eggs in a basket of plastic grass—atop a pile of leftover paper shreds cast off during the printing process.

This can/book opening took place in part because Peter and Donna were passing through Atlanta to conduct a workshop for the Atlanta BookArts Collective. The Thomases, based in Santa Cruz, California, bill themselves as wandering book artists who travel cross-country to sell their wares and educate audiences about the craft and concepts behind artists’ books. The couple travels in a “Wandering Book Artists’ Gypsy Wagon,” a brightly painted wooden wagon mounted onto a flat-bed trailer and outfitted with a kitchen sink, stove, bed and retractable table. The wagon was actually parked outside the library’s loading dock during the reception, grabbing the attention of reception-goers and passers-by. I may have wanted to write off the wagon as a cute attraction, but it is an impressive, one-of-a-kind feat of craftsmanship and engineering, and it fittingly represents the Thomas’s aesthetic.

These two artists have been not only deeply impacted by the landscapes they have travelled through, but their vibrancy and creativity cannot help but also become a part of the landscape as well. Peter and Donna’s books are a lot like their gypsy wagon: They are colorful, playful, and full of unexpected stories and histories.

Peter and Donna Thomas The Pencil, 2010, handmade paper, six vintage pencils, cedar wood pencil holder, goat leather spine, 8 1/2 x 5 1/2 inches. Photograph courtesy of Peter and Donna Thomas.

The Pencil (2010), for instance, opens to reveal a handmade pencil holder that secures six vintage pencils, with a pamphlet inside containing a history of the pencil—colored and illustrated entirely in pencil. The Southwest (2010) is a miniature book that shows off Peter and Donna’s collaborative dynamic: Donna’s vibrant, detailed watercolors of the landscapes of the Southwestern U.S. are printed on paper handmade by Peter. The Thomas’s books document the couple’s travels, their love of nature and landscape, the history of bookmaking, and their enthusiasm for literature.

Peter and Donna Thomas, The Southwest, 2010, handmade paper, color copied watercolors, stenciled pictographs, 2 1/4 by 1 3/4 inches. Photograph courtesy of Peter and Donna Thomas.

Peter gave a brief talk about the definition of an artist’s book, pointing initially to examples of traditional books, and then directing the audience’s attention to objects that, upon first impression, are not book-like at all. But—as Peter opened his wallet and ukulele to reveal pages of an artist’s book contained within them—he cleverly demonstrated how his and Donna’s books create new experiences of both reading and interacting with seemingly banal, everyday objects. I recalled how I recorded the event into my iPhone calendar as “Can Opening,” and I was amused at how sixty other people and I had commuted all the way over to Emory to witness and take pictures of two people unsealing a tuna can. The Thomas’s book art invites a fresh look at tasks—like can opening or pencil sharpening—that someone might otherwise fail to initially appreciate.

Many artists’ books possess this performative element, in which the very structure of the book provokes readers to recite words aloud or move their bodies in ways one typically wouldn’t while reading a book. Recent exhibitions, such as P is for Performance: Artists’ Books On Shelves and in Public Spaces, highlight how artists’ books, seemingly by design, possess the potential for performance. These types of books can document extrinsic performances, manipulate the passing of time in some way (flipbooks are especially known for this), or provoke the reader to act by reciting words or moving his or her hands. An Excerpt from John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row makes use of this last performative capability. Peter and Donna take the performance of artists’ books so seriously that some of their works, such as the tin can book, generate events and happenings. Reception-goers noshed on crackers contained in tin cans while sipping on cans of PBR; the event took inspiration from and became a part of the experience of the book.

Donna Thomas opens An Excerpt from John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row at Emory University. Photo by the author.

At the beginning and end of his talk, Peter praised Emory’s library for having the foresight to collect artists’ books. Emory has been receiving a lot of press lately for having cut a number of academic programs, including Visual Arts, and the university’s commitment to both the humanities and fine arts has been put into question as a result. In spite of these cuts, several librarians and book conservators at Emory are devoted to building and spreading the word about the library’s remarkable collection of artists’ and fine press books. Pockets of people at Emory are keeping the arts alive and finding ways to generate the creative and intellectual play that lie at the heart of events such as Peter and Donna’s can opening ceremony.

Kate Doubler is completing a PhD in English literature at Emory University. She is currently curating and teaching with artists’ books under fellowship at Emory’s Robert W. Woodruff Library. She blogs about book arts and print oddities at The Binding Agent.

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